What effect will Rep. Nancy Pelosi's assumed ascension to speaker of the House have on the tone of political discourse? At first glance, there seems to be a lot more talk about housekeeping and clothes.
During the campaign season, opposition to Pelosi's becoming speaker was often focused on her gender. For every mention of San Francisco liberalism, it seemed there was another reference to Pelosi's outfits, makeup and general status as a female. Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon crystallized this nicely last week, hammering comic-turned-bloviator Dennis Miller for his particularly sexist talking points on Pelosi's prospects.
In his weekly appearance on "Hannity and Colmes" on Oct. 26 (Media Matters has the video), Miller called Pelosi a "C-minus, D-plus applicant ... who no doubt would have been drummed out of the Mary Kay corps after an initial four-week evaluation period," "a latter day 'Wacky O'" and a "mask of Nefertiti for harridans." He mentioned her "little Chanel suits," compared her to the neighbor character on the sitcom "Bewitched" and showed a Photoshopped photo of Pelosi looking too tiny to fill the speaker's chair. He said she had to learn Democratic talking points phonetically "because the word 'grasp' is not even vaguely in her vocabulary" and claimed that "intellectually, Nancy Pelosi is not up to the task."
As Marcotte noted, this complaint is inconsistent with the modern-day GOP's self-image. Right-wingers have "managed to almost win, with help from the Supreme Court, the presidential election by nerd-shaming Al Gore and then again to a lesser extent John Kerry," she wrote. "Their favorite strategy, besides bellicose but empty religious rhetoric and fear-mongering, is to court people using the high-school tactic of resenting the nerds. 'Intelligence' is an abstractly good thing, of course, but calling your opponent non-intellectual undermines the entire strategy.
"Unless your opponent is a woman, of course. Since someone like Nancy Pelosi will never be mistaken for one of the guys by the Republican base voters, calling her stupid is an effective strategy, because it's shorthand for 'women out of the house are too big for their britches.' And that was the subtext, and actually pretty much the text of Dennis Miller's unfunny rant ... His argument against Pelosi getting the Speaker of the House position boiled down to, 'You don't want a girl doing a man's job, do you?'"
Not everybody on the left loves Pelosi, but this kind of sexist hit job doesn't even merit being called a critique. I guess we can't really expect better from Miller -- and I guess it's perversely comforting that he had to turn to playground jeers to make his point. But Miller isn't the only one marginalizing Pelosi because of (or using) her gender. In his press conference today acknowledging the Republican Party's "thumpin'" at the polls, President Bush patronized Pelosi, kidding that, "in my first act of bipartisan outreach since the election, I shared with her the names of some Republican interior decorators who can help her pick out the new drapes in her new offices." In a post titled "Sexist Asshat in Chief," Jen at Feministing kidded back, "Because she's a woman. And we looove to decorate."
The complicating factor here is that Pelosi herself often plays her femaleness for laughs. An October Newsweek profile recounted an oft-repeated Pelosi joke: "At one point, chattering from the crowd grows a little too loud. She leans in to the microphone. 'Am I going to have to use my Mother of Five Voice to be heard?'" In CNN's Situation Room on Oct. 31, Pelosi talked about her prospects for becoming speaker, punning, "Maybe it takes a woman to clean House." When asked, Pelosi agreed the expression was sexist, but that the sexism was deliberate, "because the fact is that a woman represents what's new in politics at the top of power."
I don't think that explanation quite cuts it. Pelosi may be playing on preexisting sexism to make a point, but she's also playing into it to seem like a regular gal. That may be a smart move for appealing to traditionally minded voters outside Pelosi's liberal San Francisco congressional district, but it also helps her opponents put the focus on her decorating rather than on her fierce criticism of the administration or her new status as the most powerful female politician in American history. Now that she seems to have reached that precipice, I'm hoping she'll swap the cleaning jokes for the real deal.